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Monday, January 6, 2014

Birds of Puerto Vallarta

by Sharon McInnes

When the last of the Rufous Hummingbirds headed back to Mexico in September, I missed them. 

Filling up before starting the long trek back to Mexico

So in November, when friends offered us two weeks in their eleventh floor condo overlooking Banderas Bay, the largest bay in the Mexican Pacific and habitat for approximately three hundred bird species, we said, of course, yes! 

Our flight path and circumstances were a little different from the hummers that left months before us. We flew WestJet, for example. During the five-hour flight food and beverage were supplied by friendly (and often funny) attendants with big smiles. The hummers didn’t have quite so cushy. They made the three thousand kilometre trip from Gabriola to Mexico on their own volition, flapping those tiny wings over fifty times per second, through all kinds of wind and weather. As far as I could tell, all the WestJet passengers made it to Mexico well-fed and happy; sadly, only fifteen percent of the hummingbirds complete their migratory journey each year. The others die of starvation or exposure or by flying into communication towers. Some are nabbed by predators or trapped for the caged-bird trade. It’s not an easy life, being a migratory bird. 

Once ensconced in our delightfully warm home-away-from-home, I settled in to watch birds from the balcony. Some were species or sub-species of birds that visit BC during the spring and summer, including Snowy-bellied Martins (Progne dominicensis). Every morning I watched dozens of these graceful birds swooping the sky, greedily grabbing flying insects that might otherwise consider my bare arms breakfast. (Go Martins!) These martins are similar to the Purple Martins that live on Gabriola but have a broad white band along the breast and under their tail coverts. 

Purple Martins. Photo by Don Wigle. 

According to my Peterson field guide, Mexican Birds, it’s possible that Snowy-bellied Martins are actually a race of Purple Martin, kissin’ cousins, so to speak. 

One morning I spotted a graceful Great White Ibis fishing in the shallow waters of the deserted beach next door. I didn't get a good photo but here's one of an Ibis by a real photographer! 

White Ibis. Photo by Terry Foote. (CC license.)

And every day, at all hours, long-winged, fork-tailed Magnificent Frigatebirds (Fregata magnificens) soared over the bay.  

Female Magnificent Frigatebird by Tom Friedel. (CC license.)

Male Magnificent Frigatebird with throat pouch inflated in breeding season
(Public domain photo.)

One afternoon a small flock of green and yellow parakeets, possibly Guacamayas (aka Military Macaws) flew by. I waved, but didn't get a photo. Then there were the huge ancient-looking Brown Pelicans! They flew past regularly, sometimes almost skimming the balcony rail, usually in synchronized squadrons of three or more.  (Once I counted twenty-four flying in formation, reminding me of Canada Geese.) When feeling a little nippy, they’d plunge-dive straight down to the sea, stunning small fish that they’d then scoop into their throat pouches.  These remarkable birds (Pelecanus occidentalis) were once on the brink of extinction due to pesticide pollution but have since recovered nicely.

Brown Pelican. (Public domain photo.)

Although I resist having a “favourite” Mexican bird, I have to admit I adore the Great-tailed Grackle. This omnipresent, very social blackbird lives year round in much of the southern States and all through Central America. Like our crows, it’s considered a pest by farmers who grow grains and citrus fruits, especially when it shows up in a flock of tens of thousands! But to me, lolling in the Mexican sun, the Great-tailed Grackle (Quiscalus mexicanus) is fascinating.

Great-tailed Grackle in PV. Photo by Sharon McInnes

I loved waking to what sounded like a wild bird party on top of the palapa roof of the restaurant, as the grackles chattered away. The Cornell Lab describes their myriad of songs and calls as “an impressive array of sounds, ranging from sweet, tinkling notes to what one biologist described as ‘calls so loud they were best heard at a distance.’ Other descriptions include ‘rusty gate hinge’ and ‘machinery badly in need of lubrication.’ The male’s territorial song includes a sound like crackling brush, a rapid-fire ki ki ki repeated 1–12 times, mechanical rattling notes, and a shrieking, high-pitched whistle.” I concur. It’s enough to wake you from a sound sleep, even above the roar of the surf. To hear some of their songs and calls go to:  

If you happen to be considering sneaking away to the sun this winter, (or if you're already there, as it seems half of Gabriola is right now) and you love birds, consider taking in The Vallarta Bird Festival from March 6-9, 2014.  I’ve done a little bird-watching in the Sierra Madre Mountains and highly recommend it. But one suggestion: pack super-duper mosquito spray!

This article (without the photos and slightly modified) was first published in
The Flying Shingle on December 16 2013. 


Stock images said...

You have share such a beautiful photographs .If you’re photographing water birds, find a way to shoot from ground level. Water birds never look right when you are shooting down on them.

The Island Book Shoppe said...

Thanks for the tip.

Anonymous said...

Just noticed your entry, I'm back from staying in the region - the parakeets are small fast birds with high chattering voices - while the maccaws are huge, travel in pairs in a more dignified manner (usually higher up) and have very deep loud calls. I don't think they are usually found in urban PV, I saw them in the mountainous countryside, and they were stunning, they have a lot of blue on their wings and backs.

I enjoy your blog, Jay

The Island Book Shoppe said...

Thanks Jay. The only maccaws I've seen in the PV area are caged or tame ones at restaurants. Sad. But I have seen parakeets in the wild near Los Arcos and at the Botanical Gardens.

Wendy said...

I went on several sites before yours helped me identify "grackle"; these entertaining birds were all over the resort grounds I stayed at in Puerto Vallarta. The frigatebirds, pelicans, and vultures, too. Thanks for the info!

The Island Book Shoppe said...

Thanks Wendy. Glad you enjoyed the post!